New Jersey Supreme Court Rejects Breathalyzer Refusal as Prior DWI Proof

New Jersey DWI laws provide increasingly harsh penalties for every previous conviction a drunk driver has on his or her record. But a recent decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court curtails the use of one type of proof of a prior conviction.

In a unanimous decision, the court held that a prior conviction for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test does not count against the record of an alleged repeat offender. The case reverses a New Jersey Appellate Division decision from last year.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court was persuaded that prior violations refer only to DWI convictions under Title 39:4-50 of the New Jersey Statues Annotated. "Such a reading is consistent with the well-established principle that penal statutes must be strictly construed," the court commented. The justices were particularly persuaded by one potential scenario: a driver can be found guilty of the refusal statute even if he or she has been determined not guilty of DWI based on other evidence of intoxication.

Such close and exacting scrutiny of statutory law is vital to assessing legislative intent, avoiding contradictory results and protecting the rights of citizens. In the absence of an explicit reference to the refusal statute in the prior-violation statute, the court reached the correct conclusion. If a sufficient quantity of state legislators feels that this decision frustrates their original intent, they can resolve the issue by updating the statutory language.

NJ Criminal Defense Attorneys Examine the Law to Devise DWI Defense Strategies

When assessing strategies to protect their clients' rights, New Jersey DWI defense lawyers often uncover inconsistent provisions in the state's criminal code. State statues constitute a huge body of law, and frequent cross-references and points of overlapping relevance inevitably lead to confusion.

One recent example is the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision regarding implied consent, State v. Marquez. That decision looked at statutory intent to justify the mandatory reading of the refusal consequences to any defendant in a language that he or she understands.

But an attorney must be every bit as adept in confronting the evidence that supports the prosecution's case. Breath test evidence, witness accounts of intoxication and law enforcement officers' administration of field sobriety tests all present opportunities for subjective error. By exploiting the potential for reasonable doubt, an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney can upend a prosecutor's seeming presumption of guilt.